Dalai Lama stops in Tucson during national tour
Tucson Citizen[Friday, September 16, 2005 07:15]

The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of 10 million Tibetan Buddhists worldwide, was to arrive today for his second visit to Tucson. He also was here in 1993. (The Associated Press)
The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of 10 million Tibetan Buddhists worldwide, was to arrive today for his second visit to Tucson. He also was here in 1993. (The Associated Press)
Vivid memories of the Vietnam War haunted Tucsonan Dick Vandemark for more than a quarter-century.

Then, in 1993, he went on a lark to see a little Tibetan man in a robe speak in Tucson and he began to get a handle on the post-traumatic stress disorder that afflicted him with constant brutal images of combat.

The Dalai Lama's first visit to Tucson turned Vandemark, 58, to Buddhist study that has changed his life, though he still copes with the memories of a young Marine, he said.

The violence he lived with has been eased by the faith that sees no point in it.

"I grew up in New Jersey and I'm a rough-and-tumble kind of cat," Vandemark said. "When my temper fires I can now see what's wrong because of the knowledge I've learned."

Monday, he will again see the Dalai Lama, who will speak at a sold-out Tucson Convention Center after a weekend of teaching people how to live a better life through meditation.

"He's basically what turned me around," Vandemark said. "I took refuge with the Dalai Lama."

The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatzo, was to arrive today in Tucson and give a press conference this afternoon before preparing for a weekend seminar at the J.W. Marriott Starr Pass Resort and then taking part Monday in an interfaith discussion at the University Park Marriott on "contemplative practices."

Monday at 3 p.m. he will be at the Tucson Convention Center Arena (booked between rock bands Nine Inch Nails and Mötley Crüe) to speak about achieving "peace in a violent world."

The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of 10 million Tibetan Buddhists worldwide and the head-of-state-in-exile of the Republic of Tibet - now under Chinese control.

He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 and is regarded as one of the eminent spiritual leaders in the world.

Jonathan Holden, the promoter of the Dalai Lama's visit to Tucson, calls it "an honor to be working this event."

But the sheer scale of accommodating a head of state (even in exile) and spiritual superstar is quite a trick.

"It's like any other event we've done," he said. "Except you just add three zeroes to the end of it. This is enormous."

The Dalai Lama's visit this week was announced in January 2004 and within days the events were sold out - except for a thousand tickets reserved to be given away to students, said Peggy Hitchcock, president of Arizona Friends of Tibet.

He draws crowds like a gangsta rapper and his reputation is drawing people in from as far away as Europe for a pretty simple reason, Hitchcock said.

"He's the foremost proponent of nonviolence in the world," Hitchcock said. "He refuses to say that violence is any kind of option. Even against the Chinese who have done terrible things to his country."

She grew up hearing tales of the faraway mystical leader from Ilya Tolstoy, grandson of the author, a friend of Hitchcock's family and the first Westerner the Dalai Lama is reported to have met.

But it wasn't until later in life that she experienced "a spiritual awakening" that led Hitchcock to leave her Episcopal roots and branch out into Buddhism.

She says now that following the Dalai Lama's peaceful example is the "only way we are going to survive.

"If we pursue what we are now - violence and counterviolence - it won't be long before everyone has the bomb and that's that," she said.

John W. Olsen, head of the University of Arizona anthropology department, has traveled five times to Tibet to conduct digs. Those trips led him to seek a Buddhist path.

"I was very impressed by the connection between the people's spirituality and how they live their everyday lives," he said. "It struck me that there was a seamlessness of spirituality and faith and work that I've never seen before."

The simplicity of the Dalai Lama's message inspires Olsen - especially a message about coping with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

"His message has been that we should focus on compassion and care for the human condition," Olsen said. "That's a message for the ages."

Does this mean compassion rules Olsen driving down Speedway Boulevard at rush hour?

"I'm human," he said. "The question is to what extent does Buddhism permeate my life."

And those whose lives aren't devoted to Buddhist ways are gearing up for the Dalai Lama's visit.

Rabbi Thomas Louchheim will join the Dalai Lama on Monday's interfaith panel and said he is "humbled" by the opportunity.

"He's the highest-ranking person I've ever met," Louchheim said. "What's important, though, is what I can learn from him."

Vandemark already has learned enough to steady his life and quiet the memories of a war he no longer has to fight.

That he will see the Dalai Lama at all this week is a "miracle," he said.

He spent months looking for tickets without success, he said.

And Tuesday, he ran into a friend who knew someone unable to use their tickets.

"They were impossible to get but I got one yesterday," he said. "I must have some pretty good karma."